Public school teachers cheer as Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, unseen, arrives unexpectedly to address a rally of thousands of teachers gathered for the second consecutive day outside the Chicago Board of Education district headquarters on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012 in Chicago. Teachers walked off the job Monday for the first time in 25 years over issues that include pay raises, classroom conditions, job security and teacher evaluations. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)
Picket lines can be sordid affairs. When a union is on strike or locked out—like the recent Caterpillar strike in Joliet, Illinois or the Cooper Tire & Rubber lockout in Ohio—the smell of receding worker power can permeate the air. The air in Chicago has none of that. At schools across the city, 29,000 Chicago teachers and education professionals are on strike—demanding both a fair union contract and a radically different vision of school reform than that propagated by nearly the entire nation’s political class. At the largest teachers’ strike in two decades, educators are fired up to fight for wraparound services for students, with more school social workers, counselors and psychologists; a holistic educational environment where all students have access to school libraries, world languages, art, music, physical education; and the preservation of the tenure system—because good teachers are made through experience in the classroom.
The corporate media’s initial dispatches on this fight have been disappointing. Instead of reporting on what the Chicago Teachers Union’s vision for education is (explained quite clearly here ), they have instead zeroed in on the CTU’s demand  for a 20 percent wage increase (which corresponds to a 20 percent increase in their workweek) and the so-called “personal feud” between CTU President Karen Lewis and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Along these same lines, media reports have emphasized the “dire” fiscal situation of the Chicago public schools—failing to note that the Chicago district spent $25 million on strike contingency plans, that the schools could gain $43 million  if the city stopped providing slush funds for wealthy developers or that the state recently gave a $528 million  tax break to the owners of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
This strike is the product of twenty years of “education reform” practiced on the backs of Chicago’s students and teachers. As the city witnessed the social destruction that accompanied high-stakes testing and mass school closures in neighborhoods already deprived of resources, a small group of teachers started fighting back against the reform agenda. As education historian Diane Ravitch observes, it was the first movement in the nation “where teachers have stood up to DFER [Democrats for Education Reform], Stand for Children [and] other anti-union, pro-privatization, anti-teacher groups.”
Al Ramirez was one of the co-founders of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE). “I was working on a movie about school closures, and we began posing the question, What do we do about it?” Ramirez’s group started book study groups, hosted public events with education activists and ultimately came to realize that the union was “ineffective at fighting back.” That’s when they began to ask themselves, “What kind of union do we want?”
The answer was a union founded on the principles of member-directed communal action, mutual solidarity and systemic analysis. CORE began having meetings on a consistent basis, including a biweekly potluck at Karen Lewis’s house, as well as doing the kind of organizing against school closures that the old-guard leadership of the CTU simply was not doing. The former CTU president, Marilyn Stewart, failed to appear  at meetings where school closure decisions were made.
The policy of school closures for schools considered failing was a policy initially propagated by Mayor Richard Daley and his longtime schools chief and current Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The Renaissance 2010 program, as it was called, closed schools in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, especially where there was nearby competition from charter schools.
The current financial secretary of the CTU, Kristine Mayle, won election in 2010 on the slate led by Lewis. She had gotten involved as a result of a school closure as well—a thread that unites most of the original members of CORE.
“My school was set for closure, and we called our delegate, and she said ‘get your résumé together.’ We wanted to force them to stand up for us, and we realized we were better equipped to do it than they were. CTU back in the day used to be a fighting union, it had become a service model or company union, and we wanted to change that up,” Mayle said. The rejection of the service model by CTU’s new leadership is reflective of a long debate in the labor movement—should unions serve their members, existing as an organization outside of the membership, or should the union be made by the members?
This is partly why the media’s focus on Lewis is so problematic; her leadership is more of an anti-leadership. A central goal of the CTU now is to have members take control of their union and their workplaces. As a result of this strategy, back in June, 90 percent of the membership, including 98 percent of those who actually cast a ballot, voted in favor of authorizing a strike. Under the new leadership, an internal organizing department was created with seven staff members and the union’s House of Delegates was expanded to include at least one delegate from every building.
For too long at the CTU, the folks at CORE felt that union policy was directed by a tiny group of highly paid bureaucrats who had little connection to the actual conditions on the ground. What’s funny is that this directly correlates to the situation at Chicago Public Schools in general. Rahm Emanuel complains about teacher salaries, even though his own salary is $216,000 per year. Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard has never taught a day in a Chicago public school. The Chicago Board of Education president is a banker, and one of its members is the powerful billionaire Hyatt heiress Penny Pritzker.
On the picket line, there is a palpable sense that the teachers who created the fighting-est teachers union in the country are about to do the same to their school system. The city is awash in red, and honks in favor of the strikers are cacophonous. Reuters recently quoted a spokesman for Stand for Children Illinois, a pro-education reform group that is a favorite charity of hedge fund managers, saying, “Teachers need to decide if they’re going to be part of this [reform] process or not.” They have, but it’s going to be on the terms of the 99%.